Once upon a time, if you wanted money to build humanoid robots, you basically had to get it from the military — specifically, the high-risk, high-reward technology lab known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Google and DARPA are entangled in a shotgun marriage
That changed late last year when Google’s own high-risk, high-reward technology lab — Google X — bought a string of companies that make robot legs, arms, eyes, wheels, and brains, with the apparent goal of building something like an android. It’s a win for roboticists, who now have a nonmilitary patron with deep pockets. But two of Google’s new rock star robotics companies, Boston Dynamics and Schaft, still have obligations to DARPA — meaning Google and DARPA are entangled in a shotgun marriage, forced to share parental duties for at least a year.
Google and DARPA have a lot in common — they both try to anticipate the future and make big bets on emerging technologies. Google even has a history of snapping up DARPA-funded technology — the self-driving car came from a DARPA-sponsored competition — and poaching its employees.
That doesn’t mean the two innovation houses want to work together, however. Google isn’t interested in taking money from DARPA because its ambitions are in the more lucrative consumer market, and any association with DARPA leads to headlines like, "What the heck will Google do with these scary military robots?" DARPA doesn’t want to give Google money because it wants to use its $2.7 billion budget to fund startups with scarce resources, not Goliath tech companies, and its investments are supposed to seed technology that can one day be purchased by the Pentagon for national defense, which Google is unlikely to play along with.
The tension came to a head over the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a $2 million competition for robot rescue workers that requires the machines to perform athletic feats like opening a door and going up and down a ladder. Google never signed up for the DRC, but it’s now intimately involved. Five of the eight teams that qualified through the DRC Trials in December are using Atlas, a humanoid made by Boston Dynamics. Boston Dynamics has a $10.8 million contract to provide Atlas robots and tech support for the DRC.
Google never signed up for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, but it’s now intimately involved
Google also happens to own the team that is most likely to win the DRC. Schaft, a Japanese robotics startup that was founded explicitly to compete in the competition, got 27 out of 32 possible points at the qualifying round in December, beating the runner-up by seven. Schaft received $2.6 million from DARPA to compete.
It now looks like Google and DARPA are trying to extricate themselves from each other a little early, however. DARPA is considering adding more teams to a track in the competition where teams build their own robot without DARPA funding, and any newcomers will use a different platform such as NASA Johnson Space Center’s Valkyrie robot instead of Atlas, in order to prevent further entanglement with Boston Dynamics. Google will also move Schaft to the unfunded track and forfeit future DARPA money, which will be reallocated to non-Google-owned teams.
It’s also looking like the finals will be postponed to give the teams more time to get ready. DARPA has not decided on a date yet, but the event will take place some time between December 2014 and June 2015. Whenever that is, it's also likely to be the last day of Google and DARPA’s unhappy union.